Make no mistake, this Wednesday's game is the biggest of the season for the Temple Owls, and its against an opponent who has given them more trouble than they would like to remember.
At 5-3 overall and 3-2 within the conference, Temple holds a half-game lead in the MAC East over none other than (the) Ohio University, the team that has twice cost TU a chance at the MAC Championship. Kick off between the Owls and Bobcats is scheduled for 8 p.m. Wednesday evening (ESPN / 1210 AM).
And now, everything you need to know about Temple and Ohio in nine convenient sections…
(1) The Eternal Question—Bernard Pierce's Injury Status
Temple running back Bernard Pierce has sat out the last two weeks of practice, attempting to heal or, at least, not further harm an ailing hamstring. Though Pierce rushed for over 100 yards and crossed the goal line for a touchdown against Bowling Green, it was clear the he did so while in serious pain. His limp was plainly noticeable and necessitated multiple breaks on the sideline for the all-time Temple point leader.
While Steve Addazio refused to comment during his Friday press conference on whether or not Pierce would be available against Ohio, Keith Pompey was able to catch up with Bernard, who ensured the Owls' Inquirer beat writer that we would in action this Wednesday.
As we wrote over the weekend, playing a complete season has been a goal of Bernard's since training camp. Sustaining multiple injuries in his first two years as an Owl has left the star rusher with a feeling that he has something to prove to himself, his doubters and maybe even some NFL scouts in terms of staying healthy for an entire season.
While it's clear Bernard will play against Ohio, it remains unclear just how effective he'll be, given the kind of injury that seems to always be of the nagging variety.
(2) The Passing Game—Steve Addazio as the anti-Andy Reid
Ever since the loss to Bowling Green—a game in which the Owls threw the ball just 13 times, despite severe setbacks on the ground—Steve Addazio has promised a greater balance in play-calling, especially on first and second downs.
Addazio will be the first to tell you that a high-flying passing game simply isn't what his team is built to do; and, really, there is very little to dispute such a claim. Still, as the Temple fans—and presumably Addazio himself—have already learned twice this year, no matter how good a rushing attack, there's very little that can be done on the ground to break a defense who will stack eight to nine guys in the box.
This team and its quarterback simply cannot handle repeated third and longs. It is an unfortunate shortcoming of a talented football team, but a reality that must nonetheless be mitigated. The team has had success this year throwing on first down, particularly in play-action. Watch for Temple to target tight end Evan Rodriguez early and often. Even as a tight end, Rodriguez leads the team in catches and receiving yards. That statistic is no doubt influenced by Chester's preference for throwing quick underneath routes and not having to open up the offense downfield. Such plays are obviously better suited on first and second down than on third (and long). While Addazio has acknowledged that the passing game could always use more "fine-tuning," he's also maintained that it is "on him" to call a more balanced game, so as to put both the quarterback and the running backs in a better position to be be effective.
(3) The Temple Quarterbacks—"All Hands on Deck"
Continuing on with the passing game, for those of you who have been clambering for different signal caller under center, you might finally get your wish this Wednesday night—it just might not be the quarterback you think.
As this coaching staff seems determined to run the spread, Mike Gerardi has become less and less of an option. Though he is a better passer than Chester Stewart, he lacks the speed to run the formation and provide a secondary rush option. Sophomore Chris Coyer has demonstrated how explosive he can be in taking off from the backfield in limited action this year; though, by his own coach's account, Chris has been just as, if not even more erratic than Chester in his reps in practice. "One ball is going this way, and the next goes the other. There needs to be a greater level of consistency," said Addazio.
That said, the coach did not rule any possibilities on Friday when asked if Coyer would be thrown into the mix as another option. Given some of Chester's own nagging injuries, the coach simply responded, "all hands will be on deck." Coyer has taken two crazy-long quarterback scrambles to the house this year after entering the ballgame in relief of Stewart and Gerardi. While a potential increase in utilization is exciting news for Chris and the offense, if the coach is serious about "all hands being on deck," he might want to remember that he has Mike Gerardi on the bench should his team find itself trailing late and actually need to, you know, throw the ball.
(4) The Ohio Run Defense—[Bobcat D] "ain't Nuttin to F--- wit"
The Bobcats D is allowing only 117 rush yards per game, a total good enough for 27th in the nation. Bear in mind, Pierce and second-string rusher Matt Brown have both run for over 100 yards the last three weeks in a row.
The Bobcats are the second best team in defending the run that the Owls have played this year, and—No—the other team isn't Penn State. It was actually the Toledo Rockets, who are ranked one spot ahead of Ohio at 26th against the run. Suffice it to say, we all remember how that game went for Temple.
This, of course, is why the balance discussed above will prove so vitally important. Bowling Green, a notoriously awful team against the run, showed last week that you can give up over 200 yards rushing to Temple, as long as you keep them pinned back on their side of the 50. Granted, Temple helped the Bowling Green cause by repeatedly Plaxico Burressing itself in the foot with penalties, but that game and this matchup remains worrying. Add Bernard Pierce's uncertain health to the equation and you could see a potential repeat of last week's affair, with each defense rendering the opposing offense useless.
(5) The MAC Title Implications—Falcons and Bobcats and Owls..Oh My!
As mentioned up top, last week's loss to Bowling Green meant that, for a week, the Owls no longer controlled their own fate. Thankfully, Bowling Green's loss to Kent State means that as long as the Owls take care of thei
r own business over the next four games, they will be on their way to the MAC Title Game in Detroit. Otherwise, they'll need a little bit of help in getting there.
At 2-2 in conference play, the Bobcats are currently tied for second in the East with the Bowling Green. Should Temple drop this game to Ohio, they would not only fall behind the Bobcats in the standings, but they would have lost the head-to-heads with now two other teams vying for the East's bid to Ford Field.
(6) The History—Temple Only Plays Ohio When It Means Something (Something Usually Bad)
Go figure, Temple's hopes of winning the MAC East once again rest on beating Ohio. Losses to the Bobcats have effectively ended this team's hope of making it to the MAC Championship the last two years in a row. All-time, the Owls are just 1-3 against Ohio, having lost the first matchup in 2007, having won the second in 2008, and, finally, having lost the last two in heartbreaking fashion in 2009 and 2010.
(7) The Bobcat Blackout—Ohio's Attempt at Intimidation or Motivation or Something
Keith Pompey reported last week that Ohio will be wearing all-black uniforms and that those fans in attendance will be donning matching black t-shirts. I'm reporting this week that should Temple lose this game, fans on North Broad street will engage in a mass blackout of their own.
(8) The Wednesday Special—ESPN's Infatuation with Mid-Week MAC Games
Temple will play this Wednesday at Ohio and next Wednesday night at home against Miami (OH). Temple played both of these teams back-to-back on Tuesday nights last year, thought Toledo and Northern Illinois appear to filling that spot this year. Yes, it's primetime, yes, it's Wednesday; and, yes, it's the MAC; so, yes, you should take what you can get, because, yes, the game is on ESPN.
(9) The Reason Most of You are Interested—Gambling Lines and Such
Temple opened as a 3.5 point favorite and has since moved to 4, and in some books, 4.5. The over/under for this game has been slow to board. I've seen the number 45 thrown around, but most books have still yet to post.
In the event the over/under is in that ballpark, bear in mind Temple's potential difficulties on offense given the Bobcat run defense and Bernard Pierce's questionable health. Also consider that while Ohio is averaging more than 30 ppg, Temple has given up the second fewest average points per game in the nation in 2011 at 10.0.
Proceed as you will.
Anyone who wants to get at me during the game can get in touch @cnmenta. Otherwise, see you post-game.
Photos courtesy NCAAGridironGab, Philadelphia Inquirer, Associated Press and Gridiron Tribune